Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ebook Parity: What needs to happen for the e-book industry to succeed

Every few years someone predicts the demise of paper and ink publishing. This usually happens after the release of some shiny new ebook reader. Most recently Amazon's Kindle has stirred such speculation. Certainly, it is an attractive option from a publisher's point of view. With virtually no production costs profit margins would soar. So, what has kept e-books from achieving any type of parity with paper and ink?

Before beginning to answer that question, let's look at some of the "success" of ebook publishing. As a college instructor, I am seeing more textbooks come with an online downloadable version for purchasers of the paper and ink book. These versions are fully searchable and often have active links to various web resources. Of course, it is still considered an adjunct to the traditional text and not usually bought as a "stand alone."

An increasing number of reference volumes are acheiving some sort of success, especially those which might be used while a person is still at the computer. I have my E-Sword Bible open much of the time with its ten translations, three commentaries, Bible atlas, Bible dictionary and three lexicons. I rarely use paper and ink for quick Bible reference any more. Of course, for more in depth study, few electronic resources match the depth I can find in paper and ink. And I don't even know where my paper and ink dictionary is. Who needs one when you can simply right-click and pull up spelling, definitions and synonyms.

Some business oriented ebooks for the busy professional written in abreviated style and able to be downloaded onto a PDA or smart phone have also acheived some measure of success.

Lagging behind, though, are books read for pleasure such as fiction, poetry, biographies, histories, etc. Yet, even in the "successful" fields we have seen little that approaches parity with paper and ink publishing industry wide.

Okay, I can see some of you saying, "Oh, but what about ______?" I want to be clear I'm talking about the industry as a whole and not just a single success story here and there.

I also want to make clear that I am not opposed to e-books, nor do I believe they will not be a major player eventually in the field. I even have one of my books out as an e-book option. And being a gadget freak, I want a sony ebook and a Kindle both, but I can't afford them.

Which brings me to the first thing that has to happen before e-books is for the cost of the reader to fall. Sony's e-book sells for $299 and Kindle for a whopping $359. That type of sticker shock is a major impediment to widespread use of this technology. With an average savings on an e-book of only $3-5 you need to buy 60-100 ebooks before you even pay for the device. And the "cool factor" alone for most of us is not enough to shake $300 out of our pockets, especially in tough economic times.

A related issue is the cost of the ebooks. Aside from public domain "classics" most ebooks offer little savings over paperback versions of the same books. At you can still be paying over $20 for an e-book. I can guarantee you that the author isn't receiving any higher royalties than on the paper and ink version of the book. The extra is all going into the pocket of the publisher and People simply are not going to pay close to the same price for something they download. Until the average price of the readers fall below $100 and the price of the books offer at least a 50% discount the average reader is not going to consider the "convenience" of carrying an entire library in their purse to be worth the cost.

Of course, one could argue, that many, if not the majority of e-books, are sold in .pdf format readable on any computer screen. This is true. However, backlit computer screens are hard on the eyes for extended reading and even laptops are not that portable. I'm not going to take my laptop to bed to read the next chapter of my mystery novel or pop it open next to me on the counter at the diner over lunch. Reading for relaxation needs simplicity and portability. Computers are far from simple and only marginally portable.

PDA's and smart phones provide an attractive possibility. I download books on my Palm e-book reader. I am reading Wuthering Heights right now on my Palm. However, my thumb gets tired. I have nearly about four inch by two inch screen. That means about 25 words fit in one screen. My thumb hits the scroll button every few seconds. Also you have the backlit screen issue causing more eyestrain more quickly. Improvements in screen technology will probably help correct this issue over time. But the smaller screen will still mean constant scrolling. Special dedicated readers optimized for reading at a price an average person can afford is necessary if ebooks will take off.

E-books also need to play to their strengths. Marshall McLuhan claimed that each new medium initially draws it's content from a previous medium before developing its own forms. I suspect that e-books are at that stage. Many of the "problems" with e-books result from them trying to substitute for paper and ink books rather than play to their strengths. Again, I'm reminded of E-sword. It doesn't pretend to be a "book" with pages that you start at the beginning and go to the end with. It is searchable. You open it up, choose your translation, run a search term to find your scriptures and then chose from them. Click on one and bring up the commentaries and lexicons. That's something I can't do with paper and ink. I can have 10 reference works open at one time on one screen and rapidly compare them and then move to another scripture and they all update with me at once.

The power of such nonlinear content creation is obvious for reference works. What about entertainment? Again thinking outside the chapter will help. Interactive fiction is an obvious concept. Take a mystery novel. You follow the detective and then come to a decision point like does Joe (a) interview the hotel manager (b) check the autopsy report (c) look for clues in the hotel room. The reader jumps to that scene and then has other decisions to make.

What about muliple POV's for a single story. Tell the story from the POV of more than one MC and allow the reader to switch between them. After Marianne has told her parents she is going to marry Phfttchgh a purple alien from Alpha Centauri we could continue to follow Marianne, listen in on what her parents have to say or jump to a scene where Phfttchgh tells his four parents why he wants to marry the pale pink Marrianne.

Now, good multi-pov interactive novels, that just might make me part with $300.

With nonfiction the possibilities become even more interesting. For instance, being able to cross reference several books at once. Consider reading a history of Egypt and reading about Ahknaten. Then you could highlight his name, search all your other books for that name and pull up a set of links to those references. Imbedded links to websites or online encyclopedia or journals maybe with a one-time access fee charged to your credit card for pay-as-you-go services could also be an option.

The ability to insert video and audio clips into the text is another strength. Consider reading a history book about ancient Rome and then click on a link and the author takes you on a tour of the Colosseum.

So, yes, there is a future in e-books and in paper and ink. After all, they are pretty convenient, read in reflected light, portable, relatively inexpensive and the smell of the pages is intoxicating. (Okay, that may just be me). However, for e-books to become truly an equal alternative to paper and ink the cost needs to come down on both the readers and the material and the b00ks themselves need to begin to play to their strengths and break free of the paper and ink models.


Blogger Karina Fabian said...

Actually, Terri, there are some people who write what are called hypertext novels. Several years ago, I had a friend who wrote some novels like that. Rather than a linear plotline, she had a plot that was circles within circles, with multiple connections. You could either go to the map and click on each page in order, or you could click on sections within the text, which led you to other pages with different pieces of text telling the scene from another POV or leading to a new scene.

I don't know if those have gained a following, but they were called hypertext novels back in the 90s.

I remember trying one, but the publisher rejected it for being too linear.

Karina Fabian

November 27, 2008 at 7:16 PM  
Blogger Dennis G. Jerz said...

Echoing what Karina wrote... yes, hypertext novels exist, dating from the "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels of the 80s, which are still popular with tweens. A publishing house called Eastgate specializes in "serious hypertext," and the founder, Mark Berenstein, is a familiar influence in the digital literacy world, publishing some of the canonical literary hypertexts from the 90s that remain popular in graduate literature seminars on postmodernism and digital culture.

Another source for even more experimental multimedia literature is the Electronic Literacy Organization, which tends to blur the line between hypertext, games, toys, videos, etc. If it's electronic, they want it.

Your post also mentioned interactive fiction, a term which has many meanings. I recognize that you used it in a very broad sense, but to many people it refers specifically to command-line text-parser games where you type something like "unlock grate" and the game say "You unlock the grate, revealing a shaft leading into the hillside," or something like that.

While Eastgate sells its canonical texts from the 90s, and there are few commercial works of interactive fiction, there is also quite a lot of word-based digital culture that's available on the internet. Text adventure games fit easily onto a PDA or smartphone.

I asked my university to order a Kindle and I've spent several weeks playing with it. I'm not sure I'm ready to drop that much money on a Kindle of my own, but if I had one, I probably would buy more books, since a Kindle book isn't much more money than a movie ticket (and the book lasts longer).

BTW, the Kindle screen is not backlit. It reads exactly like paper, so I really didn't find any eyestrain. In fact, as it got late and my eyes got tired, I liked being able to crank up the type size. It was also a very convenient (and free) basic web browser. It doesn't let you view YouTube videos, but I could easily read Wikipedia, blogs and online newspapers.

November 27, 2008 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger Karina Fabian said...

Eastgate! Thanks, Dennis!

November 27, 2008 at 8:29 PM  
Blogger Terri said...

Yes, I remember the hypertext novels of the 80's. Those would be a perfect fit for the electronic technology. I think the point was was trying to make is to play to the strengths of the emerging technology.

It's like TV. Originally, most TV was based either on radio programs (Lucky Strike Hit Parade) Stage Drama (Armstrong Circle Theatre) or the movies. Over time the TV drama took on its own form, newscasts became less of reading the news and built more on interviews and news clips.

Even the computer started as basically either a big calculator or a filing cabinet. Eventually, though each of these technologies found their unique strengths. Interestingly enough, the new technology doesn't totall supplant the old, but does impact it. Radio and the Movies didn't disappear but they did change as television took hold. We still have filing cabinets and adding machines their use has changed.

Dennis, I loved those old textbased games. Lots more interesting to this old geezer than the video games which give you everything. Of course, many of the older (80's) video adventure games still used a lot of the same text commands just with pictures.

Still, there was something about having to try to imagine the room and then follow the clues.

Nice trip down memory lane.


November 27, 2008 at 11:45 PM  
Blogger Dianne Sagan said...

I'm working on a couple of ebooks right now and believe that it is a great option, but was very interested in your informative post. It helps me put ebooks into a clearer and broader viewpoint.
I appreciate that greatly.

Dianne Sagan

November 28, 2008 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Terri said...

You might want to follow this discussion over at


I did notice that there is a new low cost 119 dollar ereader at and ereader has software you can use to produce ereader content for Palm and Pocket PC OS's


December 2, 2008 at 6:01 AM  

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